8:00 p.m. Thursday, August 13, 1945. Lincoln, Nebraska.
Marj took advantage of the brief quiet from the teletype machines and looked around the tiny United Press bureau office. The desks were cluttered with carbon papers, empty Coke bottles, dirty coffee cups, cigarette butts. Editors and reporters throughout the Lincoln Journal building were sleepy, their nerves on edge. Was it only a week ago that the Enola Gay dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima? So much had happened since then on the other side of the world. Another bomb. The Soviet Union declaring war on Japan and invading Manchukuo. And then the waiting began. When Emperor Hirohito officially announced the Japanese surrender – and the event was clearly imminent – would know in short order. But Marj wanted to be one of the first with the information when the 10 bells of the teletype machine rang and the word FLASH came over the wire. After those bells, the details of the event would print on the feed and Marj and her colleagues could be part of the journalistic apparatus taking the news to the world.
Marj had barely slept in days. She had taken the train from Lincoln to Omaha Tuesday night to help Elizabeth, Millie, and Betty at their slightly larger UP bureau. She was at their office through the evening, caught a few hours of sleep back at Millie’s apartment and was back at the office before Wednesday sunrise waiting for the surrender FLASH. Everyone at the Omaha bureau thought it would come sometime in the morning. But it didn’t. She stayed at the office until four in the afternoon, then was back again after a short nap. She caught the Wednesday night train back to Lincoln and stayed at the office until 1:00 a.m. Home for a few hours asleep I her own bed, then back at 7:00 a.m. Thursday morning. Thirteen hours later, she was still there. But now it was time to go home. She desperately needed a bath. She hadn’t had one since Saturday, and the hot train ride in a sealed car had made the desire even more pressing. Her landlady, Mrs. Seamark, had baked her a birthday cake – oh yes, she turned 22 today! – and then there would be time for some blessed sleep before again manning the teletype machine.
Less than five hours later, she was back at the office. Had any of that time been spent sleeping? Well, no. There was the bath and some talking, then when she finally got the light off, the phone rang. Was it Maggie calling about a FLASH coming in? No, it was Dad. Good to talk to him, but still. Then she tried to sleep again, but Mrs. Seamark was restless and decided to scrub the bathroom floor to quiet her own middle-of-the-night nerves. And Mrs. Seamark was not a quiet housekeeper. Then the phone rang again, and this time it was a FLASH from Tokyo, but still not the news of the surrender. So Marj was back at the office in the wee hours of Friday. The layer of cigarette butts on the floor was a trifle thicker, the circles under her eyes were a wee bit darker, and her reaction time to the teletype machines was slower. Otherwise, nothing had happened.
And then, finally, it did. An “informative” note came over the wire that President Truman would have a press conference at about 6:00 p.m. The teletypes continued to clatter, then at precisely 6, they went dead. There were eight people in the office, watching the machines very, very closely. They held their collective breath, and then the bells went off.
“FLASH—WASHINGTON PRESIDENT TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAP SURRENDER.”
Marj told the story of the next few hours in a letter sent to her family on Sunday, August 16.
It was timed off at 7:01p (EWT). Then, the race began. The story started moving, and we tore it off a paragraph at a time to send back to the Journal. Outside, Lincoln let its hair down and went wild. Whistles started all at once and every horn in town was blowing. The noise seemed far and distant, however; Maggie and I were too busy keeping the copy moving. She tore it off the machines and handed it to me. I jammed it into the tubes and shot it back. The Journal had an extra, complete with blood-red “War Over” headlines about 5 inches high, and a four-column V in red over the other type, on the street by 6:40. They had about three columns of type set, too. The later extras, of course, were much more complete.
I suppose we went out to supper about 7:30, and the main street was packed. We ate at the Cornhusker, had fried frog legs, but they weren’t much. Then, we started back. By then, Lincoln had gone completely mad. I was amazed. I frankly never expected it from this straight-laced town. Paper was all over the place, and when the folks didn’t have paper to tear up and throw, they tossed popcorn. Cars were turned off the main street, because they just could not get through. There was no violence, however. I was wishing I could have stayed out in it, but still those machines up in the office, with their fatal fascination, beckoned.
Marj stayed in the crowded office throughout the evening. She was monitoring the machines when news of Emperor Hirohito’s speech came in at 10:00 p.m. When she finally got home, the adrenaline wore off and exhaustion set in. It was at long last time for sleep.
She was drifting off when the phone rang again. Was it another FLASH? Did she need to go back to the bureau office? No, it was her brother Jackie. Before his call, all she knew was that he had been in a foxhole in the mountains of Austria. He had fought and been injured as the conflict ended, he said, but was now home in Texas weeks ahead of schedule. For both nation and family, then, the war was truly over.
Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri – this archive of primary source material is invaluable.